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Whistle-blowers should be rewarded, not discarded or punished

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Kris Dobie is Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics at The Ethics Institute.

It is hard to explain why we tend to leave whistle-blowers out in the cold. It may be that companies fear association with anyone who has had that much media attention. Or perhaps they fear this person is a natural ‘troublemaker’. Maybe we are afraid that our own smallanyana skeletons could be sniffed out.

As the pieces of the State Capture puzzle start to fit together and more arrests are made, we too easily forget the role played by those men and women who exposed corrupt dealings at a time when it was far from safe to do so. 

In some instances they were simply doing their jobs and reporting irregularities as they came across them, but in many more cases they broke ranks and, at serious risk to themselves and their careers, exposed wrongdoings to the media, lawyers or the (previous) public protector. 

We refer to these courageous souls as whistle-blowers. 

If you ask them, many will say they never initially thought of themselves as whistle-blowers. Concerned and responsible citizens, perhaps. Just doing what needed to be done. But as they were battered by the fallout from their actions, they realised why the term ‘whistle-blower’ had such negative connotations.

Much has been written recently about the consequences whistle-blowers have to endure. Many lose their jobs and struggle to find employment after having done what they considered to be their public duty, resulting in considerable financial and emotional stress.

A very strange thing occurs when someone blows the whistle. I recently read an article where someone said it is like an immune reaction takes place – with organisations and society wanting to expel the whistle-blower. 

It is perhaps easier to understand this at an organisational level. The whistle-blower has upset the status quo and created chaos where there was order. 

The fact that that order included institutionalised ethical transgressions becomes irrelevant. It may even be that the whistle-blower has pointed out these transgressions which the rest of the management team has been blind to, but, rather than own up, it simply seems easier not to have to deal with this non-team player.

At the societal level, it is more difficult to explain why we tend to leave whistle-blowers out in the cold. It may be that companies fear associating with anyone who has had that much media attention. Or that they are just unsure of whether this person is a natural “troublemaker”. Perhaps we all fear we have smallanyana skeletons that these people with their superpowers may sniff out. 

Although many will agree that the whistle-blowers have taken a huge personal risk for the public good, very few are willing to take a personal risk in return and employ them. 

And perhaps this is normal. But then we have to do something about it.  

Surely we can’t just happily stand by and ask individuals to carry tremendous personal costs for a societal good. We don’t expect one person to bankrupt themselves to build a road that the rest of us can use. But if they expose corruption in relation to the building of that road, we are perfectly happy for them to bankrupt themselves. 

If, as a society, we feel that whistle-blowers assist by shining a light on hidden transgressions that cause societal harm, we should be wanting more people to do the same. But if at the same time we are saying to potential whistleblowers that they are likely to carry a huge personal burden on their own, it surely sends the wrong message.

When we do training on whistle-blowing we frequently ask the question whether whistle-blowers should be rewarded. Most people say no – we should not be incentivising people to do what should be their normal moral duty. Which seems to make sense. 

But it also seems that as a species we don’t act in line with our moral duty and support whistle-blowers, carrying them on our shoulders through the streets to celebrate the great good that they have done. Instead, we banish them so that we can move on and forget about the whole sordid affair.  

So, what is to be done?

One option is to incentivise whistle-blowing in the way the US does. It has no fewer than four programmes which incentivise people to blow the whistle on federal securities violations, exchange control violations, tax fraud or fraud against the federal government. 

Generally, whistle-blowers are paid a percentage of funds that are recovered by the government – up to 30% in some cases. The largest award to date has been $250-million.

It is not difficult to see that there might be unintended consequences arising from a system like that – ranging from “fishing” expeditions to creating a corporate spying career option and a mercenary whistle-blowing culture.

Also, there are cases that might not include the recovery of funds – such as environmental transgressions – which would still be without compensation. 

A recent letter written by a South African whistle-blower makes some suggestions.

Bianca Goodson, Trillian/McKinsey/Eskom whistle-blower, wrote a public letter to Eskom CEO André de Ruyter, asking him to actively employ whistle-blowers, donate a fraction of recovered funds to whistle-blowers who have lost their livelihoods, and publicly demonstrate gratitude “to those who have lost more than Eskom during their efforts to progress Eskom”.

De Ruyter responded with a very gracious letter acknowledging the “substantial contribution” that Goodson made to Eskom, but said he can’t pay her as there is no provision for it in law. 

I would argue that the Eskom board can decide to make a contribution on the basis that is in the long-term best interests of the organisation. 

If whistle-blowers are shielded from fallout, future whistle-blowers will have more of an incentive to come forward and companies will be more likely to find out about transgressions that cause them harm. 

But this would still be a once-off solution. Other whistle-blowers will surely face repercussions in the future. And yes, there is the Protected Disclosures Act, but seeing what whistle-blowers have to go through, it just seems woefully inadequate. 

As a society we can surely do better? The costs of performing a societal good should be carried collectively, not individually. DM

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